2017-05-03 / Arts & Entertainment News

Hell, no! Gulfshore Playhouse packs a wallop with ‘The Christians’


Six years ago, Rob Bell, pastor and founder of the Michigan mega-church Mars Hill Bible Church, caused a big controversy by questioning the existence of Hell. His book, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived,” created a huge stir, particularly among Evangelical Christians, because it questions if Hell exists and wonders whether Jesus’ salvation is universal — that all are saved by His sacrifice.

Pastor Bell was named one of Time magazine’s Top 100 Influential People of the World that year, but 3,000 congregants left Mars Hill Bible Church. Criticism came from various Christian leaders and theologians, and Pastor Bell eventually stepped down later that year, leaving the church he’d founded.

In “The Christians,” playwright Lucas Hnath looks at the life of a similar Christian pastor of the Eternal Life Church. The church began in a small storefront and then moved to a gymnasium. It eventually built a sanctuary, a huge structure that contains a coffee shop, bookstore and a baptismal font “as big as a swimming pool.” The church is so huge it even has an escalator, and the joke is that the parking lot’s so vast you could get lost in it.

The cast of “The Christians” at Gulfshore Playhouse. 
COURTESY PHOTO The cast of “The Christians” at Gulfshore Playhouse. COURTESY PHOTO On this one particular Sunday, the congregation meets to celebrate that fact that it’s finally out of debt.

But on this same Sunday, Pastor Paul (a folksy and genial Alan Campbell) gives a sermon that disturbs some in his congregation: He tells them that God told him there is no Hell. (Like some believers, Pastor Paul talks about having two-way conversations with God as if it’s an everyday occurrence.)

The congregation is dumbfounded; those seated on the platform look at each other, bewildered.

Associate Pastor Joshua (William Oliver Watkins) is particularly confused, and confronts the pastor right there, in front of everyone.

And so the church schism begins.

What happens when one devout believer says God told him one thing and another says God told him the exact opposite?

Kristen Martino’s set of the front platform of a mega-church is eerily realistic. There’s a huge wooden cross in the center, with a drum kit stage right and an electric keyboard stage left. Down in front are a couple of chairs and little tables with vases of flowers. It has that sterile look of an impersonal space that could have been designed by someone who designs shopping malls.

The play opens with a three-piece band playing (Jyn Yates on drums, Ryan Closs on guitar and musical director John Austin Clark on keyboards). Kate Fahner comes out and sings a couple of praise songs.

If you’d walked into The Norris Center and didn’t know you were going to the theater, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d accidentally walked into a church. Images of lush landscapes and back-lit doves appear on two large screens when the songs are sung, as do the pastor’s sermon points, given as if it were a Power- Point presentation.

Mr. Campbell’s Pastor Paul is an affable guy, not slick or authoritarian or smarmy. We like him. In his sermon, he tells a story of the first time he saw the woman he married. They were on a plane, but she was seated far from him. He sent a note to her via a flight attendant, saying, “I have a powerful urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance between us insurmountable” — a statement that could be said by practically everyone in this play.

The existence of Hell is a major tenant in Christian theology, and questioning it sends this church — and the relationships of those within it — reeling. It even affects the pastor’s relationship with his wife, Elizabeth (Amy Van Nostrand), who is rattled by his sudden change in theology.

While this challenging 90-minute play is about change, beliefs and the challenge of communication, it’s set in a specifically Christian milieu, which might turn off some theatergoers. There’s much talk of various scripture verses, theological arguments and lots of praise songs.

The script has a few stumbles. A congregant asks if she can give “a testimonial” rather than a testimony, making it sound as if she’s at a black-tie dinner. And it seems strange the church doesn’t have a statement of faith: very specific things that it believes and preaches.

But the playwright is clever, too. The associate pastor who believes strongly in the existence of Hell is named Joshua, an Old Testament name, whereas Pastor Paul has a New Testament name, implying grace over law.

Pastor Paul also preaches a sermon in which he mentions a verse from Isaiah about a building having a crack in it — a metaphor. Though his sermon causes disagreement in the church, it is Associate Pastor Joshua’s leaving that encourages others to leave. And, in the Old Testament, it is Joshua who leads an army around the walls of Jerico, blowing horns, causing the city’s walls to fall.

The writing of “The Christians” is highly stylized, as is the staging: Everyone talks to each other via a handheld microphone, even husband and wife in bed. Some might find that off-putting, but the playwright insists on this, saying in his stage directions that, “Everyone will always speak on mics, just the way pastors do.”

People step forward and say their piece.

This is almost like a Greek tragedy, only there isn’t a chorus, just a musical trio and lone singer.

The script consists of monologues and dialogues between two people. Pastor Paul also narrates the action, on occasion adding “he said” or “she said.”

Each actor gets his or her moment to shine.

Mr. Watkins is powerful in his questioning of Pastor Paul, and he gives a heartbreaking description of his mother’s death; Ms. Fahrner’s confrontation of the pastor is also heartfelt. Stephen Bradbury, as Elder Jay, a member of the church board, has a conversation with Pastor Paul soon after his momentous sermon; he is gentle, respectful, low-key.

As Pastor Paul’s wife, Ms. Van Nostrand doesn’t speak until the end of the play — but when she does, she’s extremely powerful. So many in the church have left him. Will she leave too, or will she stay and support him? Or does she see a different option? There are layers in their relationship: love, affection, reliance, disappointment, confusion. The two talented actors play all those emotions in their interaction.

This is a rare play that presents Christians as … well, Christians, as flawed people trying their best to make their way in this world. They’re not satirized, or presented as two-dimensional characters for the audience to mock.

“The Christians” explores what happens when someone makes a radical change later in their adult life. How do we react? Do we feel betrayed? Do we abandon them? Do we change, too? How does that challenge our own life?

This little 90-minute play packs a wallop. The ending, which I will not reveal, is incredibly powerful, though also open to interpretation.

It’s unlike anything else I can recall seeing, and my feelings and thoughts about it changed repeatedly within 24 hours after seeing it; I suspect they’ll continue to change as I keep musing on this oddly affecting play.

And perhaps that’s what the playwright and Gulfshore Playhouse intend to do: challenge our thinking and make us think and rethink and rethink yet again.

After all, what good is a life — or a faith — that doesn’t stand up to repeated re-examination and questioning?

Do we live ruled by fear, or by love? ¦

‘The Christians’

>> Who: Gulfshore Playhouse

>> When: Through May 21

>> Where: The Norris Center, Naples

>> Cost: Tickets start at $45

>> Info: 261-7529 or www.gulfshoreplayhouse.org

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